Captain America Hails Hydra: The Aesthetic Identity of a Comics Icon

Unless you’ve been living under a rock or have absolutely no interest in comic books (the latter being more likely), I hate to break it to you, but Captain America is now and has always been an agent of Hydra, the ancient evil organization once tied to the Nazis that he has otherwise fought against for the last fifty of his seventy-five-plus-year history.

Hail Hydra!
Final page reveal from Steve Rogers: Captain America #1 (May 2016)

In interviews, writer (and one-time politician) Nick Spencer — who has become much reviled in the comics community over the past year (http://www NULL.ign NULL.com/articles/2017/04/25/marvels-nick-spencer-on-captain-americas-betrayal-and-handling-fan-reactions)— has made it clear from the very beginning (Steve Rogers: Captain America #1 (May, 2016)) that comics’ most patriotic hero has not been brainwashed nor is he a doppleganger dispatched by some villain to disrupt the status quo. No, this Captain America is, was, and always has been a member of Hydra. And while the plot may be somewhat complicated (essentially, a sentient Cosmic Cube altered history), the end result is the same: Captain America — while still an idealist — is now a fascist, and the world of Marvel Comics is now victim of his burgeoning secret empire (begun with a book of the same name which debuted in April of 2017).

Over the past year, newspapers and magazines around the world have grappled with the implications of a villainous Cap, while fanboys and average citizens alike have made it known that messing with such an America icon would most certainly have Cap’s creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby rolling over in their graves.

Cap’s still the same guy that fought the second World War, was thawed from ice in the sixties and eventually become leader of the Avengers, only to take a bullet and die a martyr after Marvel’s first Civil War (of course, no one in comics stays dead). It’s just that writer Nicker Spencer has cast doubt over Cap’s motivations the entire time he was a “hero.”

In the now altered history, Cap became America’s sentinel of liberty with the support of Hydra. Since being thawed from the ice decades ago, he’s had a secret agenda in mind: to gain the trust of the nation — the world even — so that one day his machinations would put him in control of everything from an alien defense shield that encircles the planet to the military / police force that is S.H.I.E.L.D. (think Marvel’s global equivalent to the C.I.A.). What motivates this scheming Captain America? Service to Hydra, and world domination under his leadership. In that regard, Cap believes himself to be a savior of sorts — a man of singular vision who will rule fairly, but with an iron fist. World leaders and superheroes have failed society, this Steve Rogers believes, and humankind will benefit from the order and direction he and his version of Hydra will bring.

He Was the greatest among us...
“He was the greatest among us…”

Some have said that Spencer has tapped into the cultural zeitgeist of right-wing politics and populism that has risen of late in the western world. That said, the first issue of the series debuted in May of 2016, long before Trump was elected president, Britain planned to leave the European Union and elections throughout Europe became the platforms for debate about nationalism, safety, and the rule of law.


Is this new Captain America a symbol for such movements? Curiously, the right has rejected a fascist Cap, seeing in him the worst of liberal attempts to tear down patriotism and demonize law and order. The left, too, responds with rancor as a symbol to them of a more tolerant democratic ideal has been corrupted.


The issue raises questions of a fictional character’s nature and how he or she can become different things to different people at different points in history. Aesthetic identity — insofar as a fictional character can be said to have an identity (which makes for sticky metaphysics) — can support the argument that there can be an alignment of the cultural and the artistic to a point where art (even comic art!) can become “ours” or “theirs” — positioning an icon like Captain America as being in the service of special interests at any given point in time.

Time. It’s essential to the discussion of a fictional character with longevity. In the hands of different writers and artists over time, does a fictional character need to have a persistent identity over that stretch of time to continue being that character? To theorists, this state of being is called endurantism — where an individual is wholly present at every moment of its existence. Or can that character  have distinct temporal parts to its existence — called pedurantism — and thus not be tied to continuity of existence?

Some philosophers would raise the “Ship of Theseus” debate at this point. And while that might take us far afield, give me a paragraph to explain. It goes like this: if a ship exists in one form at one time and is then taken apart plank by plank and re-assembled at a later time with pieces re-arranged for revised purpose, is it the same ship anymore? The general principle could be applied to this fascist Captain America. Remember, he’s not brainwashed nor is he a doppleganger. He is still Steve Rogers. More so, he has always been Steve Rogers AND a child raised and heavily influenced by Hydra. While in the hands of the Allies in the second world war, the Cosmic Cube once masked the true nature of Cap as a servant of Hydra. He was made to be a hero in what ironically turned out to be the actual alternate reality. When the cosmic cube revealed Steve Rogers’ “true” nature as an agent of Hydra all along, it was actually returning reality to how it should have been (the original Ship of Theseus). Was the re-assembled ship also Steve Rogers? To those adhering to pedurance theory, the answer is yes. His identity is tied to distinct temporal parts throughout the character’s existence. It can therefore be said that while Hydra Cap is the same (fictional) person, his identity is dependent on the Cap that he is at any given point in time. Identity is not fixed.

To a lesser extent, we’ve seen iconic characters change radically before at distinct temporal points. Sherlock Holmes has been a twenty-something genius in the nineteenth century, a middle-aged cocaine addict in the twentieth, and an unkempt eccentric of indeterminate age in the twenty-first. Batman has been both a level-headed and lauded superhero with a clear sense of justice, but also a reviled vigilante with possible mental illness.

In the end, who is Steve Rogers? In and of itself, that question presupposes that there is an end (and a single Steve Rogers). For characters like Cap who have been developed and modified over time by countless writers and artists, there will never be an end. Only slices of time in which that character exists. To complicate the matter, one could argue that every comic one reads, regardless of when it was written, is happening as it is read. Fixed points in time all happen at once to the mind.

Of course, Captain America as agent of Hydra could be nothing more than a marketing ploy — a none-too-clever way to sell more comic books. The alternative, however, has more than risk for the company of possible stagnant sales. It has the permanence that a character can never change — or perhaps more important, be challenged with change (even for the worse) and find their way back to redemption.

After Secret Empire comes to an end, let’s hope that the cosmic cube which started this whole mess doesn’t simply alter reality once again *, for it would be interesting to see one of America’s most enduring symbols find his way out of the darkness to do what heroes do best — fight against injustice regardless of cultural tides. To exist as different beings over time but retain their heroic traits no matter how misguided they may be. To transcend aesthetic identity and approach what every creator hopes for a character: a life beyond the pages.

Yes, Steve Rogers is fictional. And yes, we’re talking about comic books. But we’re also addressing core beliefs that human beings are capable of significant change over time, and that character is a trait as well as a fiction.

And to the architect of this tale, Nick Spencer, a special message: we’re counting on you to define who Captain America is, was and will be for generations to come.

Don’t blow it.

August 26, 2017: Oh well. SPOILER. Deus Ex Machina. Kobik, the sentient cosmic cube, restored the status quo. The “real” Steve Rogers returns, and in a punch-up all too typical for comics, beats the crap out of Fascist Cap. What remains to be seen in Marvel’s “Legacy” is if this returned Captain America can regain the trust of the nation.

If only real life could be this simple.

More (or Less) Human: Gynoids and Realdoll AI

Real Doll’s first “robotic head system”

Sex doll manufacturer Realdoll (https://www NULL.realdoll NULL.com/) has recently announced that its silicone companions will soon have limited artificial intelligence. The company’s “first robotic head systems” (no pun intended, I’m sure) will roll out later this year, featuring eye and mouth movement that will simulate facial expression and deliver vocal responses that actually play off of — and learn from — its owner’s conversational cues.

Just as much of what we take for granted today on the internet — from streaming video to e-commerce — was pioneered by the porn industry, so too it would seem that advances in AI (and VR for that matter) will owe their development to humankind’s baser instincts. Predicted in many works of science fiction — such as Maria, the gynoid, in Fritz Lang’s silent masterpiece Metropolis (1927) [set in the not too distant future of 2026] or the “basic pleasure model” replicant Pris in Ridley Scott’s genre-defining Blade Runner (1982) [set in the even sooner future of 2019] — the android as sex slave has been the dream of many a horny lonely nerd. And the idea that machines could simulate human action? Centuries’ old.

The earliest documented attempts at creating an artificial human —referred to early on as “automaton” — dates to both Albertus Magnus and Roger Bacon in the 13th century. But it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that the term “android” found its way into the lexicon (the appears in US patents as early as 1863 in reference to miniature human-like toys), with “robot” oddly enough following it early in the twentieth century. Coined by playwright Josef Čapek in R.U.R. the word “robot” is derived from the old Slavic ‘rabota’, meaning “servitude” or the more modern “rabu” meaning “slave.”

Indeed, the robot or android as slave is a both a theme in much science fiction and a very real ethical dilemma for futurists. In a 2013 essay (http://ieet NULL.org/index NULL.php/IEET/more/pellissier20130913) for the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, futurist and transhumanist Hank Pellissier reduces the roles of robots to three basic tasks: work, kill, sex. “Robot obeys. Robot does what human Master wants. Robot is Slave,” writes Pellissier, adding “we’ll want them gleaming gorgeously and functioning smoothly as they perform their functions for us – laboring, battling, copulating.”

Gorgeous and functioning, um, smoothly (pun definitely intended), is certainly the directive of the RealDoll. Having no will, it will simply bend to suit its master’s desires.

Of course, there’s always the fear that the slaves will turn on their masters. Physicist Stephen Hawking, for example, in an interview with Larry King (http://www NULL.ora NULL.tv/larrykingnow/2016/6/25/larry-kings-exclusive-conversation-with-stephen-hawking), once said “artificial intelligence has the potential to evolve faster than the human race” adding that “once machines reach a critical stage of being able to evolve themselves we cannot predict whether their goals will be the same as ours.” Is it so outlandish to think that limited AI as being pioneered by McMullen could decades from now be seen as the first generation of androids that will, indeed, be able to pass for human and think freely? It is after all, only a sex doll.

RealDoll’s founder and CEO Matt McMullen makes no pretension to such lofty goals for his doll that will set you back $10,000. In an interview with vice.com (https://www NULL.vice NULL.com/en_us/article/real-doll-artificial-intelligence-sex), he says “We’re not trying to fool you into thinking, ‘Is this a real person?’ We’re trying to make the experience something you’ll enjoy.”

Enjoyment. Pleasure. Companionship. It may be simulacrum, but the RealDoll doesn’t judge. It doesn’t make demands. And like a doll, it can be put away and taken out only when its owner wants to play.

What this will do to social interaction and human behavior remains to be seen. Should the price drop and RealDoll becomes as ubiquitous as the mobile phones that suck our attention and keep us from making true human contact with the person right next to us at Starbucks, we may face a future where it is the human that becomes more and more like the cold machine. Distanced from other human beings and closer to the machines that fulfill our needs. Then the lines will really blur as the science fiction of our time predicts with shows like Westworld (http://www NULL.hbo NULL.com/westworld) and Humans (http://www NULL.amc NULL.com/shows/humans).

In a 1994 issue of Scientific American, Marvin Minsky, a cognitive scientist and co-founder of MIT’s AI laboratory wrote “Will robots inherit the earth? (http://web NULL.media NULL.mit NULL.edu/~minsky/papers/sciam NULL.inherit NULL.html) Yes, but they will be our children.” Two decades later, artists and engineers like McMullen have skipped that paradigm. Robots will not be our children. They will be our wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, lovers.

What’s the next step in Realldoll’s development? McMullen is calling the next stage “Realbotix” — an attempt to animate the whole doll so that it may more realistically respond to the physical stimulus that is its owner. One can only imagine the possibilities. And therein lies the rub (literally and figuratively speaking). For it is imagination that fuels the future.

How beauteous machinekind is! (Will it be a) depraved new world that has such beings in ‘t?

Click here to watch a short interview with McMullen and a demonstration of the Realdoll AI (https://youtu NULL.be/nJc9BROjXfM)courtesy of Fusion (http://fusion NULL.net/).